Not making sense

One of the things I’ve written about a bit is ‘making sense.’ It is, or so I argue, one of the themes of the theology of Rowan Williams. Theology isn’t in the business of giving definitive answers to difficult questions about life and death and God, but about making sense of ourselves and God in the light of Christ and in the situation in which we find ourselves. We do the best we can–theologians and non-theologians alike.

Sometimes the best we can do falls short of ‘sense,’ insofar as sense means finding the ‘reason’ implied in the saying, “everything happens for a reason.” (By the way, the most convincing reason I have ever seen is “physics.”) To say I enjoyed reading a piece by Kate Bowler in the New York Times today is perhaps not quite right. In “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me,” she talks about the intersection of her life experience (being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer) and her academic work (on the history of the prosperity Gospel). Her husband’s response a neighbor’s suggestion that “everything happens for a reason” cuts right to the heart of the problem. “I’d love to hear it.”

Of course, the neighbor had no response to that. Who would? Some things don’t make sense. When, as a (somewhat idealistic) 24-year-old, I suggested that there might be a way of solving the problem of evil, my professor asked me, “If there were a reason for the holocaust, would you want to know it?” That professor was Miroslav Volf, who inducted me into theology. I’ll always be grateful for that question, though of course at the time I didn’t realize how long it would stay with me. When a woman in her thirties is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, there is no reason that would be reason enough. There can be, this side of our final redemption, no justification for the pain and loss.

The temptation is always to make sense of things that refuse to submit to our powers of interpretation. We long for the answer to our plaintive, ‘why?’ And it doesn’t come. I hate that. But I would hate the answer even more, I think. Why does my daughter have Down Syndrome? Plenty of good has come of it, yet none of that justifies the difficulties she has faced and will face in her life. There is no reason that is reason enough. 

I wish I knew what to say–for I have a friend, a bit older than Kate, who is also dying of cancer. Maybe more slowly, but certainly. A former student, only 30, died last year. I know just one thing, and that is that I am grateful for Kate and all those who narrate some piece of the journey, because that is the way I too am going. I may be a little behind or a lot, but I am on the same road. Death is a part of life, and we cannot live fully without it.

Thank you, Kate. Thank you, Jess. Thank you.

 

 

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Sadness and truth

It’s worth noting that the weather outside is miserable: cold, wet, and windy. Maybe that contributes to my sense of the overwhelming sadness in the world today. But I usually like the rain, even the cold and the wind, and I love the winter-bare trees against a pale and greyish sky. So I think it’s not the weather. It’s not even my own sadness, really. It’s these two things. 

The first is the work so beautifully presented on upworthy (which a friend posted to Facebook) on the difficulties boys face as they try to achieve an unrealistic and hurtful masculinity. Boys don’t have to be tough. It also made me think again about the way I am with my boys, and that’s good. But the video made me really sad, sad that there are so many stories of pain and loneliness. The second might seem completely unconnected: a project exploring poverty in the UK. They overlap, though, in the stories of tough times and pain. 

And just yesterday, I was engaged in a lively conversation with my students, a conversation about the Incarnation. Of course the question of suffering somehow always comes up, one way or another, as soon as the questions begin. So it did. There isn’t an answer, as I have said before, here on this neglected blog. There is suffering, and there is redemption; we endure the former and hope for the latter…and it is a mystery. It’s no less true today than it was yesterday, but the question is more poignant. The answer is less comforting. And so it should be. It is one thing to say in front of the lecture hall that you don’t have all the answers. It is another thing entirely to face the questions out there, in the world where they arise out of raw disappointment and agony–whether the pain is mine or another’s. 

And so I will try to be grateful for the sadness I found today. I heard somewhere that joy comes in the morning. 

Deo gratias.

The Trinity for toddlers, part 2

Teaching theology affords an incredible opportunity to see how people cope with a doctrine that resists the intellect's instinctive attempts to solve it. It is not, as theologians like Rowan Williams and Thomas Weinandy (two very different thinkers, to say the least) have observed, a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. It's a mystery. Rowan Williams says, drawing on the resources of Eastern Orthodox theology, that 'the doctrine of the Trinity is a crucifixion of the intellect.' So it isn't surprising that students of theology, whether giving the lectures or hearing them, find it difficult.
 
But it doesn't crucify the intellect to no purpose, nor is it the most difficult of the mysteries of the faith. We might think that Jesus is the answer, but he raised a whole lot of questions for a few hundred years. The incarnation and the atonement present us with mystery just as irreducible as the Trinity. The intellectual life of the believing soul involves contemplating the truths of the faith while holding fast to the knowledge of God's ultimate incomprehensibilty. And nowhere is this more true than in that most difficult, deal-breaking area of theological reflection that we call theodicy. The problem of evil is not, like the Trinity might be, a stumbling block just for the intellect. It confronts us when inexplicable and unjust things happen to us or to those we love, things that make us turn to God in confusion, wondering how a God who is omnipotent and perfectly, completely good, could allow such things to happen. I understand how it ends up being a deal-breaker.
 
I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I did to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn't 'mine' to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don't possess it. But that doesn't explain why I am still hanging around. Probably I owe that to my mother, who taught me lots of songs about Jesus when I was small. They're not the sorts of songs that survived the 1980's, but they impressed upon me a certain understanding of Jesus, one that stayed with me. The core of what I think about Jesus was formed before I was old enough really to be puzzled about how someone could be fully God and fully human.
 
So I am really glad that when my small son asked me, 'Who is God?' I answered with reference to the Trinity, with the sign of the cross, with the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could have answered, as I supposed might be more practical, with something about God as the creator, or God as love. These would have been good. But at age three, my son never asked how the one I called God could also be called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It isn't like we grow up and suddenly the penny drops, and we grasp how three can be one, how one can be three; we don't mature intellectually such that if we wait long enough to introduce these difficult concepts, we will be able to understand them. Better to get used to a name that names something we don't understand from the get-go, and grow into appreciation of the mystery as we develop intellectually and spiritually.
 
Now I can imagine lots of objections to that, but they will have to wait for another day.

The rubber meets the road

Some days are like that: the sense of the unfairness of the world is overwhelming. I have been following the story of a former student. She's 29. She's a Methodist minister. She is married and has two little girls. She has Stage IV renal cell cancer. Look it up.
 
Doesn't seem fair, does it? I teach theology. Every year, I know which lecture is going to be the hardest. It's the one in which, however the topic is named, we deal with the 'Why?' question. Why do bad things happen to people who don't deserve it? Why does God allow people to suffer? Why? It is the hardest lecture because there are no easy answers. I gave that lecture to this young woman. And however difficult it is to talk about it in a classroom, it is inconceivably more difficult to wrestle with the question when you meet it on the street. There, it lies in wait. It ambushes you. It knocks you down and stands over you, daring you to get up again. It seems–however well you might have coped with it in front of the whiteboard–stronger than you are. You can't answer it.
 
I am amazed, again, by the faith of my students. In the months I have followed her diagnosis and treatment, I have seen an incredible strength and courage, and a refusal to let the 'Why?' question get the upper hand. I often say that my students have the difficult job–to go out, to be the face of Christ in ministry. I teach, and I love teaching; when my students leave the classroom, most of them go out into a world that doesn't know how deeply it needs healing. And when people do seek God, they don't come looking to me. They look to them. I am conscious of this responsibility, and it is humbling. More humbling still, though, is knowing that whatever I have to give pales in comparison to the faith, hope, and love that are the real gifts that the minister requires. All I can do is point to the source, and hope I have gestured accurately and clearly, that I have helped and not hindered the process that began long before students walk into my classroom. Not surprisingly, I pray for my students, all of them, because I know that everything I say and do is useless without the grace of God, without the Spirit of God being poured out into their hearts.
 
And their faith is nothing to do with me–the testimony of so many, especially my cancer-fighting former student. I taught her years ago; now she's teaching me. Next time I give that lecture, I will have her in my heart. I will be more humble in my approach. I will say, 'It's a mystery' with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. But I will also say it in hope, in faith, and with love, because the mystery of the unfairness of the world is the same as the mystery of love that redeems the world. Her faith reminds me of that, reminds me that in the face of the question on the ground, faith still flourishes.
 
Amazing.